Q&A with The Academy Dad: Supporting Children in Academy Football
Mindset coaching is a practice which is regularly raised by parents and coaches from grassroot to academy football but is then often taken no further than these initial conversations. Whilst football is gradually waking up to its impo
rtance, the specialist support does not always trickle down into the academy system and as a result there are many young players not reaching their full potential. Our own recent twitter poll reflected that 28% of academy players felt regularly apprehensive and 16% suffered with overwhelming anxiety. These numbers are concerning and as a parent it can be difficult to know how to manage a situation of this nature should your child be one of those suffering.
In light of the above I reached out to Sports Psychologist Keval Patel and was delighted when he accepted my offer to conduct a Q&A session around the topic of mindset and performance related anxieties. Keval provides a fascinating insight into this subject matter and its many benefits.
I hope the advice provided will give parents greater confidence to broach the subject of mindset with their child and implement some processes in which allows them to thrive.
Firstly, can you kindly provide us with some details of your own playing background, academy experience, any current roles within football etc.
I began my career as an extended trialist at Chelsea FC where I spent 6 months. I then signed for Watford as a U11 and stayed there until I was U12. After leaving Watford I was lucky enough to immediately sign for Wycombe Wanderers FC. However in 2013 at the start of my U16 year, the club closed due to the introduction of the EPPP and financial problems.
I then went on trial at QPR FC, Barnet FC and eventually signed for Stevenage FC. I completed an extended schoolboy Scholar at the club from U16-U18 so I could complete my A-Levels, and eventually moved into non-league football after going to University to study Psychology at the University of Nottingham. After finishing my undergraduate, I completed a Masters in Applied Sport Psychology at St. Mary’s University (Twickenham). I am currently on the BPS Stage 2 Training Route and will hopefully be a Chartered Sport Psychologist towards the end of this year. I run my own consultancy company supporting elite athletes, Academy and Professional Footballers. I am also the Academy Sport Psychologist at a Championship Football Club, working with the Professional Development Phase squads (U18 – B Team) and intermittently with the Youth Development Phase.
So what made you choose a career in sports psychology?
In November 2013, Stevenage FC U18 we were due to play Wigan Athletic in the 3rd round of the FA Youth Cup. I was a U16 at the time and I expected the U18 goalkeeper to play. However on the Friday morning before the game, I was told he was injured and that I would be starting the match. I remember getting to the ground and feeling so nervous. I remember shaking in the tunnel and looking at all the guys thinking how much bigger they were than me. When the game started, things that came so naturally to me like my distribution and decision-making began to break down. I was choking under pressure. Now looking back, I know I was suffering with performance anxiety! That’s why I chose a career in sport psychology – I want to make sure players don’t experience the same feelings I did that day so they can thrive under pressure and fulfil their potential.
As an academy parent myself how do I know that I am firstly adopting the correct mindset for my child to thrive and do you have any advice to ensure parents are practicing positive mindset habits?
The best mindset you can adopt as a parent is one of support and openness. The role of the parent is to facilitate learning, development and character strengths. The children will be given so much information from the coaches and support staff at the club regarding the technical, tactical, physical and psychosocial aspects of the game. Your job as the parent is to support your child’s off pitch development and facilitate their learning of football related information so they can fulfil their potential. It is also important that parents understand the chances of making it are less than 0.01%. Focusing on how your child is developing as a person rather than the professional contract at the end of the journey is always the best way to approach the academy journey.
How does a parents mindset influence the behaviour's of our children when it comes to their approach to sport?
Parents have a significant impact on the behaviour of their children both on and off the pitch. Children in the early years of development have very adaptable brains, and can draw associations very easily. If they make mistakes and see you demonstrate poor body language on the side-line, they will attach the outcome of failure with upsetting their parent. Children’s brains are so malleable, which means that you have to be mindful of your behaviour around them. Your behaviour can impact how much they enjoy the sport, how much pressure they feel and the long-term relationship you have with your child. Be aware that as children grow up to become adolescents, the brain becomes less adaptable so those early years really do matter.
At what age should a parent look to approach the topic of mindset with their children? Should different approaches be undertaken for Foundation Development Phase (FDP 9-12 years old) and Youth Development Phase (YDP 13-16 years old)?
For me, mindset begins at the start of a player’s journey during the FDP. It may be more implicit at this stage, such as getting players to reflect on performance, or encouraging them to learn from failure. As players progress through the system and into the YDP, you can begin to challenge them more, such as developing skills like resilience, teaching them about wellbeing and mental health, and helping them overcome mental blocks in performance. When you get to the PDP, players are challenged in multiple ways which are related to growing up and becoming a young adult. This includes building effective relationships, navigating full-time football and finding a balance between performance and development. As a parent, it is always worth asking coaches or specialists to assess your child before any formal or more detailed sport psychology work takes place.
What initial techniques can a parent use to introduce mindset coaching with their children?
Dependent on the age of your child, young players tend to respond well to techniques such as reflection and self-talk. Reflection is the process of working through a lived experience and understanding what you would change or do better next time, then creating an action plan to go and execute these factors. Self-talk are the words and language a player tells themselves, which can impact a player’s confidence, motivation and focus. Introducing self-talk is as simple as asking a player what action words best describe their best performance. They might reply with things like ‘confident, dominant and brave’. You can then challenge them to repeat these words to themselves during matches and see if they can behave like, and embody those words.
The term ‘growth mindset’ is often referred to with developing players. Can you explain what exactly this term means and why this is so important?
‘Growth Mindset’ is a method of thinking where people believe that ability is developed through hard work and purposeful practice. It is the antithesis to a fixed mindset, where individuals believe that talent and ability are innate and genetically driven. I would guestimate that 99% of high-performance individuals believe and embody a growth mindset. You think of people in football like Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Gareth Bale – all of whom struggled in their early professional years but through purposeful practice, hard work and an openness to learning have become world class players. You also see this in business with the great inventor James Dyson, who created over 2000 models of the first cyclone hoover before finally creating one that works. The growth mindset is a non-negotiable when it comes to Academy football. 99% of players will need an openness to learning and drive through hard work and purposeful practice in order to reach their potential.
How much focus was there on the area of mindset during your academy playing days and what do you think of the way academies are currently addressing this topic?
My time in academy football was probably one of the last remaining years where sport psychology wasn’t regarded at all. Some First Team squads had access but the Academy didn’t. I had no understanding of the subject besides things like the law of attraction or self-talk.
Looking back, it seems crazy to me that clubs didn’t invest in psychology because we know from research what a positive impact it can have on performance, development and wellbeing. I’m very confident that my playing career would have looked very different if I had access to sport psychology after leaving Wycombe Wanderers because the manner in which the academy shut down left its scars. For some reason football has always been resistant to the concept of sport psychology, however it’s pleasing to see that it is slowly becoming part of the conversation and there are many clubs who are now engaging with it more formally.
What level of competitive edge do players who work on their mindset have over players that neglect this area of their training?
The brain is like any other muscle in the body. If you don’t train it, it will never get stronger. Players who buy-in to the concepts of psychology and mindset absolutely have a competitive advantage over those who do not. Mindset isn’t just exclusively reserved for your actions, feelings and thoughts on the pitch, it can also have a significant benefit for your development off the pitch as well. There are many talented players in the system who will ultimately not reach their potential because they don’t know how to use their mind to drive performance and development. The ones that do go on to have careers in the game understand how they can use their mindset to work on specific components of their game, deal with pressure in those match defining moments and know how to respond to adversity and setbacks. Mindset is arguably the most important skill when it comes to performance and development because without knowing how to use your brain, you cannot acquire technical or tactical knowledge.
Many parents struggle with giving feedback, with many critiquing their child as soon as they get in the car. Are there any techniques on giving feedback which still encourages a positive mindset with the child?
I understand why a parent’s natural instinct is to critique performance. It may be due to their upbringing or the way we all critique professional sportspersons in the world today. Children in Academy football are not professionals and therefore require a tailored approach to learning and feedback. Parents may believe that a ‘tough love’ approach is best when it comes to development and performance. The research suggests otherwise. Rather than projecting your opinion of their performance, ask them how they feel they played. Ask them what they did well, what they would do differently next time and if they had fun whilst playing. What you are encouraging here is reflection and experiential learning. We want young players to recognise their failures and mistakes, but we want to emphasise the action plan moving forwards rather than focusing on how bad the mistake or failure was. The best parents look forwards for solutions, and help guide their child’s learning. Also remember that parents are not the experts – the clubs employ highly experienced coaches who are taught how to deliver specific feedback to players. If you want feedback on your child’s performance, the best person to ask is the coach to ensure there is a consistent message. Ultimately they will be the ones making a decision on your child’s future, so why not go off what they say?
If our child is experiencing any anxieties or pressures within the academy system is there any advice or tips you can provide to assist them?
Players experiencing anxiety and pressure during their journey is completely normal because ultimately academy football is a competition for contracts. My advice to any parent is to monitor your child’s wellbeing and to keep checking in with them to safeguard their mental health. Their wellbeing is always the priority. In terms of dealing with the associated pressure and anxiety, have regular conversations about how they are feeling and emphasise the importance of enjoyment, opportunity and having fun. Try and logically work through these thoughts and feelings by asking them what reasons they have to feel a particular way. For example: Most players worry about making mistakes because they fear this will be a ‘bad mark against their name’. In reality, coaches are accepting and know that players will make mistakes, so why worry about it in the first place? Encouraging your child to reflect on their feelings and understand the reality of situations can be a good way to reduce pressure and stress on their journey. This requires a lot of patience on the parent’s behalf, but over time the child will develop a level of autonomy when it comes to processing their thoughts and feelings.
Parents of academy players obviously worry about the scenario in which their child is released by the club. How should parents balance both maintaining a positive mindset with their child yet making sure they remain realistic about their journey?
Professional football shouldn’t be the only plan a child has in their life because this places too much pressure on them having to achieve their goal. The parent’s role throughout the Academy journey when it comes to managing expectations should include conversations about their ‘Plan B’. It’s fantastic when players are driven towards becoming professionals, but having a realistic understanding of the statistics, the pathway and what they may alternatively want to do with their lives is incredibly important. This allows young players to enjoy their time in the system, enjoy the process of development, and build character strengths which few other activities can provide at this point in their lives. Focus on the benefits of the system and how they benefit your child in terms of their development as a human, and if they have the potential and ability to reach the professional stage then that too can be celebrated.
As someone who went through the academy system, what is the best advice you would give a parent and the best advice you would give a player?
The best advice I would give a parent is remember what the definition of being a ‘parent’ is. When I got older and moved through the academy system, the amount of technical and tactical advice my dad gave me reduced significantly because he knew I was getting expert knowledge from the coaches. What he did support me very well with was getting through adversity, being professional, approaching training with 100% commitment and teaching me what it means to be a decent human being. He also ensured I got a good education, which significantly took the pressure off me from forcing myself to become a professional which allowed me to enjoy my experience. For players, understand that the journey is there to be enjoyed, but requires you to apply yourself in every session. If you apply yourself and have fun whilst training and competing, your learning will occur naturally and you will develop into a better player. It is easy to lose your way when you have the club badge all over your training kit. Remember that while you’re there to have fun, you also need to work hard and recognise that you are in a fortunate position, with a fantastic opportunity to live your dreams!
We must briefly touch upon your specialist subject which is goalkeeping. It’s such an isolated position and one which requires strong mental resilience. Are there any additional tips or techniques which you can provide to aspiring young goalkeepers?
It’s a simple one which I know affects every young goalkeeper I’ve worked with – Stop worrying about mistakes! We all know that when outfield players make mistakes, there are 10 other players who can bail them out…When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, it normally ends up being a goal. When you’re a young goalkeeper, you are going to make mistakes. Some will look worse than others and some will feel worse than others! It’s completely normal! Coaches are not always interested in the mistakes you make, they are interested in how you respond and how you approach executing specific skills the next time. A coach will be far more impressed with a goalkeeper who makes a mistake and carries on as if nothing happened, than a goalkeeper who goes into his shell. The key skill for goalkeepers is acceptance. You can’t control what has happened in the past, but you can impact the future. If you make a mistake, take a quick moment to yourself to collect your thoughts, re-strap your gloves as if you were starting the game again, and act as if nothing happened. The best advice one of my old goalkeeping coaches gave me was: “If I came and stood on the sideline to watch one of your games, I shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between you at your most confident, and you after making a mistake.” Its advice that still sticks with me today and works very well for the professionals. Body language and communication are two easy ways to achieve this. Shoulders back, head high and stay chatty!
What kinds of support do you offer to athletes and where can more information about your offerings be located?
The way that I support players is by working with them 1-to-1, having conversations about their performance, development, wellbeing and helping them come up with strategies that will elevate their game to reach their full potential. This could be anything from developing strategies to make them more confident on the pitch, teaching them how to manage performance anxiety, or helping them understand how to train more effectively when they are away from their club. As a former academy player, current semi-professional and Academy Psychologist at a Championship Club, I really try to combine my experiences of the game and the system with my technical knowledge of mindset and psychology. I always offer introductory conversations to parents so they can ask questions and understand how sport psychology support works. This not only empowers them with knowledge to support their child on their journey, but also allows me to understand their child’s current situation in more detail, and how I might be able to support them on their journey through the system.
All this information is available on my website: https://www.knpsportpsychology.com . Here you can find more information about my services and gain insight into some of the elite footballers and athletes I have supported.
Alternatively, feel free to direct message on @theGKmindset on twitter or @thegoalkeepersmindset / @knpsportpsych on Instagram
The Q&A was conducted with The Academy Dad. You can go directly to this page here: https://www.theacademydad.com/